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Oriental music meets Beethoven

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
July 5, 2021

Echoing Beethoven's humanistic spirit, the musical project "1001 Measures between Bonn and Babylon" fosters dialogue between Eastern and Western traditions.

Musicians hold framed drums, also known as the daf in Persian
Hand drummers perform at the '1001 Beats' concertImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan/DW

The first thing that was apparent during the concert at Bonn's Trinitatiskirche on Sunday was its relaxed atmosphere. The orchestra's conductor, Bassem Hawar, directed his musicians while playing his djoza, a violin-like instrument, and the singers gesticulated openly as they sang, breaking into a little dance every now and then.

Hawar, the winner of German public broadcaster WDR's Jazz Prize in the category "musical cultures" in 2020, and his troupe of German, Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Persian musicians came together in Bonn on July 4 for their final performance as an ensemble for "1001 Measures between Bonn and Babylon" (1001 Takt zwischen Bonn und Babylon), a transcultural project encompassing a series of workshops and events, paying tribute to the composer Ludwig van Beethoven's humanistic spirit.

The first musical piece of the evening was a maqam lami, a melodic mode in classical Arabic music that some believe originated 5,000 years ago and was promoted by the caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty. With their capital in Baghdad, the Abbasids ruled over the Arab world from the 8th to the 13th century and were considered patrons of art and culture.

Saman Haddad speaks at the intercultural music concert
Saman Haddad: Music is a global languageImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan/DW

"It was a golden period," said Hawar during the performance, as he explained the meaning and context of the melody and compared it to present-day Germany. For the conductor, the fact that musicians from different parts of the world were coming together to play in Beethoven's home town could be seen as "a golden age for Germany," he said.

'It's always about heartbreak'

As the orchestra moved through its repertoire for the evening, strains of the Oriental flute ney were combined with Beethoven music to invoke sounds of nomads moving across vast expanses. The piece "Malan Barkir," sung by Kurdish singer Mehmet Akbash, is about the nomads in the mountains.

In one way or another, "It's always about heartbreak," Saman Haddad told DW, speaking about the ensemble's selection of works and of the nature of Oriental songs in general.

Haddad is the project manager of the "1001 Measures" project and has been key in bringing the musicians together and launching the exercise. "For example, the song 'Dokhter Shirazi' is about a girl from the Iranian city of Shiraz, which is famed for its beautiful women," he added.

Another example is the song "Lalish," performed during the concert by a Kurdish singer. It is about the Yazidis, the persecuted minority in Iraq who were also the victims of a genocide carried out by the terrorist group "Islamic State" in 2014. The song was originally written by a Muslim and refers to a mountain valley in Iraq, where the Yazidi community's central shrine is located.

Concert "1001 Measures between Bonn and Babylon"
Musicians with varied instrumens performed at the concertImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan/DW

Combining Beethoven with nomad music

For the project, many of these melodies have been intertwined with fragments of Western classical music — like Beethoven's fourth.

The juxtaposition of the different musical traditions was a challenge, explains Haddad: "It was very complicated. We have songs from Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Persian traditions, and I told our experts to suggest eight songs from these languages which could be played on Western instruments and which Western musicians could play — not too many quarter-notes." 

Haddad sent the suggestions to Hans-Joachim Büsching, clarinetist in the Beethoven orchestra in Bonn, who selected some of those songs and worked in fragments of Western classical music into them.

To choose musicians for the ensemble, members of the non-profit educational association Migrapolis, which is organizing the project together with BTHVN2020, the society overseeing Beethoven's 250th anniversary events, invited applications from singers and instrumentalists from all over Germany.

The final selection included musicians of German, Kurdish, Persian, Arabic and Turkish descent, who play different instruments, such as the Iraqi djoza (also known as the rebab), a string instrument played with a bow, and sometimes plucked; the Persian daf, a hand-held, framed drum; the oud, a lute-like instrument; the Iraqi santur, a hammered dulcimer; the ney, an end-blown flute; along with Western classical instruments like the bass, the violin, trumpets and clarinets.

Time for celebration

"We have done it, the results are here," Haddad said, rejoicing at how the "1001 Measures" ensemble succeeded in mixing different traditions of music. "We want to show through music how important it is that people come together because it is a global language that everyone understands," he added.

Indeed, the "1001 Measures" project ultimately aims to promote social inclusion and integration between immigrants and locals in Germany. 

Portrait of Philip Gondecki-Safari, a blurry street in the background.
Philip Gondecki-Safari: Integration takes place in both directionsImage: Manasi Gopalakrishnan/DW

"It's not a one-way street," argued Philip Gondecki-Safari, referring to the fact that inclusion in Germany has often been understood as being the responsibility of the immigrants, who had to work towards integrating themselves into mainstream society here.

Gondecki-Safari is another project manager at Migrapolis, part of the Bonn Institute for Migration Research, whose various activities promote inclusion within German society.

"It's like how it happens in real life. Integration as process, in the sense of people coming together, has been happening for centuries," Gondecki-Safari said, adding that migration wasn't something that started just three or four years ago.

"The Romans came all the way along the Rhine. In the Rhineland, and in all of Germany's history, or the world's, for that matter, humans were always moving from one place to another."

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.